The Mad Lib Protocol

A tool for accessing the brain’s three memory keepers.

From Word Hero, by Jay Heinrichs.  Please do not copy without permission.


To understand the art of memorability--making your words stick in people's heads--we will conjure up some neuroscience and Sue Sylvester: 

Sue: You think this is hard? I’m passing a gallstone as we speak. That is hard. 

If you own a television, have spent more than ten minutes with a nerdy teenager, or like musicals, you probably know that Sue Sylvester is the genially vicious villain on the TV series “Glee.” In which case, you also know that a significant demographic comprising epidermically challenged self-described “Gleeks” love to memorize lines from the show.

Without the memorable lines, frankly, the show would hardly be all that memorable—a few hotties lip-syncing Top Forties, for the most part. For future Word Heroes, though, the script is solid gold. Its best lines neatly illustrate well-established scientific principles—not to mention ancient rhetoric, which intuited the stuff of memorability before the first electrode got taped to a scalp. So let us look at what makes a line irresistibly memorable and use that knowledge for our own immortal purposes. In this chapter we’ll look at the three building blocks of “stickiness,” the ability to make your words memorable. And we’ll use a technique that imitates the Mad Libs game to copy the techniques behind your favorite quotes.  If I do my job right, you’ll find yourself seeing self-expression in a whole new light.

People’s memory tends to work alike, mechanically, whether the brain belongs to a middle-aged guy who writes for a living or to a self-conscious adolescent Gleek who fantasizes taking a Spanish class with the adorable Mr. Schu. In either case, three kinds of recording mechanisms hold words in the memory. Collectively, I call them the SPA: Sounds, Pictures, and Associations. Just about all figures and tropes employ one or more of these memory keepers. You’ll find some overlap among all three. Tools that create sounds may also create pictures; the picture tools often have associative qualities; puns employ both sounds and associations; and a trope like metaphor may have entire SPAs dancing in your head. Still, the organization closely follows the current theory of cognitive neuroscience. People file memories under these three elements. 

Sounds: Tap-Dancing Horses

The sounds memory keeper converts names, phone numbers, and other abstractions into mental audio tracks and plays them over as a kind of sound loop. Music makes a great mnemonic for this reason. You probably learned the alphabet along with your little classmates by singing “elemenopee” as two notes. Commercial jingles take advantage of the brain’s sound recording apparatus by setting words to tunes. Readers of a certain age can sing along to “Double your pleasure, double your fun, chew Wrigley’s Spearmint Doublemint gum!” (In fact, if you’re of a certain age, you probably hate me right now because you will be singing that stupid jingle in your head for the rest of the day.)

Rhetoric uses more hip hop than jingle, marshalling repetition, wordplay, and what the poet Robert Frost called the “sound of sense” to lay down its memory track in people’s brains. Take this line from “Glee”:

Jesse: You guys need to stop being such asses and start being badasses. 

Jesse sets up some nice hip-hop syncopation here. YOU guys NEED to STOP BEING ASSES. Pause. And START BE-ing BAD-asses. The repetition of “asses,” with the surprising change in meaning second time around, helps make the line memorable. And rather funny.

The very sounds of words can make a passage unforgettable. One of my indelible memories of high school is a junior-year English class during which Mrs. Appleton recited a poem by Lord Byron. Normally, Mrs. Appleton spoke in a high, soft voice; but when she quoted from memory it seemed as if Byron’s demon had taken over her body. “ROLL ONNNN, DEEP AND DARK BLUE OCEAN, ROLLLL ONNNNNNNNN.” The teacher had intended the recital to demonstrate onomatopoeia, I think. But it literally made me sit up and take notice, and not just because this birdlike teacher suddenly channeled a famously randy poet. Like Mrs. Appleton, you use can sound effects—popping consonants, lugubriously drawn-out-vowels, the exploding onomatopoeia—to get your audience to pay attention. 

Artie: I sound like someone put tap shoes on a horse and shot it. 

While this “Glee” line makes little logical sense, look at the two critical words, “tap,” and “shot.” Both of them qualify as onomatopoeias, words that mimic the sounds they describe. 

Besides the mimicry, the sentence also plays with the length of words: “Put tap shoes on a horse and shot it.” What do those words have in common? They all contain just one syllable. That second half of the sentence has a tap-like sound to it. Monosyllables make for great punchlines, because the choppy effect puts the stress on every word, increasing the audience’s focus on them.

Now listen to the sound stylings of Sue Sylvester: 

Sue: Some people like to film themselves getting physical with their partner. I happen to enjoy revisiting the impeccable form of my jazzercise routines. 

Is that the language of someone you love to hate, or what? The brilliant insertion of “impeccable” makes the line especially maddening. You will find few more impeccable-sounding words than “impeccable.”  Say it aloud: “impeccable.” The word has a pun-like quality, as if it means “not susceptible to pecking” instead of “flawless.” 

Imagine if Sue had used “flawless” instead. 

Unwritten: I happen to enjoy revisiting the flawless form of my jazzercise routines. 

While alliteration may make things marvelously memorable, in this case, “flawless” is  flawed. Why? Because it contains a “flaw.” That’s where sound contributes to, and takes away from, the sense of a sentence. You want to be impeccable? Then avoid the flawless—avoid the sound or meaning you deny.

Use the sounds memory keeper to enhance your storytelling, offering a sound track to make scenes come alive. Sounds also work to change people’s mood, through humorous noises or lugubrious lamentation. And you can even use sounds to link things that don’t naturally go together. They don’t seem alike until you make them sound alike. Finally, sounds help you label people, things, or ideas. The ways words play in the ear can let you shrink or grow almost anything. You can make something seem important or unimportant, calming or alarming. All with the sound of your voice.

Or you will be able to, soon. The chapters to come cover a variety of sound tools, from the whizz-bang onomatopoeia to the word-mashing portmanteau. In fact, the next three sections after this chapter take you through all the memory keepers and the tools to go with them. First, though, let’s look at pictures

Pictures: Spraying Cats and Smell-o-Vision 

The second memory-keeper renders thoughts visually, as if storing memories on tall shelves in an unconscious warehouse. The Greeks could memorize vast amounts of information by deliberately “putting” concepts into mental rooms. World-champion memorizers use this method today. Instead of remembering facts and numbers, they simply reserve mental rooms for them, and then mentally walk around and pick them up. Words that create pictures for your audience do much the same thing, providing a setting for thoughts and emotions. Observe Santana, one of the evil cheerleaders, gossiping about a fellow Glee Club member.

 Santana: She’s like a cat in heat. She talked about him yesterday and practically sprayed the choir room.

 Unwritten: She is so horny. She could barely contain herself when she was talking about him yesterday.

Talk about catty. It’s cruel enough to talk smack about another girl, but to describe her so vividly will earn Santana at least another eon in Purgatory. If you’re going to be evil, that’s the way to be evil. The unwritten version would just engender an eye roll of agreement from her listeners. The “Glee” version gets quoted by middle school students across the land. Why? Because of Santana’s masterful use of imagery here. Not stopping at comparing her colleague to a hormonal cat, she puts a little video clip in her listeners’ heads of girl-as-cat spraying the choir room.

I call this technique “special effects”—details that employ a variety of senses to make life appear before your very eyes, the way computer graphics work magic in movies. (Rhetoricians call the phenomenon enargeia[J1] , but I like my term better, and find it far easier to pronounce.) Special effects can implant a vision in people’s brains even more indelible than a scene in a video game. That’s because rhetorical special effects make people form the image themselves. It’s second only to experiencing the scene in life—an impossibility in this case, thank goodness.

Sue Sylvester, a master of special effects, loves to use the perfect hair of her nemesis, Will, to create unflattering pictures. 

Sue: I don't trust a man with curly hair. I can't help but picture little birds laying sulfurous eggs in there, and it disgusts me. 

Image-making at its best, in the form of an analogy. (Both of my kids recited that line to me at separate times.) From the moment she said it, Will’s hair was spoiled. Those birds will be laying their rotten eggs amid those curly locks for years to come.

Special effects can also cover other senses, such as smell. 

Sue: I thought I smelled cookies from the tears of elves weeping that live in your hair.  

Here you have a combination of senses, including sound. Sue loves to use the word “weeping” when she refers to other people crying. (Sue herself doesn’t cry; she had her tear ducts removed because, she said, she “wasn’t using ’em.”) Why choose “weeping” over “crying”? Because “weeping” sounds wimpy and weak; the word makes the victim seem like a wuss.

Having implanted the sound track, Sue turns on the figurative Smell-0-Vision with the baking cookies. The fact that the line doesn’t make any sense only shows that its memorability comes from one direction: the senses. This is purely right-brained stuff. And the brain’s right hemisphere—the side less interested in logic—happens to be where the most important memory keepers reside. 

Associations: Bowels and Consonants

While sounds and pictures can convey just the sensual effects you want—effects that extend far beyond the meaning of the words themselves—they can also create links with other parts of the brain. Which leads us to the third memory-keeper. Associations put thoughts in the context of previous experiences, or they link one concept with another.

Look what happens when “Glee” characters employ puns, intentionally or otherwise. 

Brittany: When I pulled my hamstring, I went to a misogynist. 

Brittany happens to be the most delightfully stupid “Glee” character, and I’m grateful to her for teaching vocabulary words to young people (assuming someone’s around to explain “misogynist” to the lexigraphically clueless). The malapropism comprises a kind of unintended pun, and puns make for a great associational device. Brittany’s addlebrained talk could turn any massage therapist into a blond-hater, making her statement quite accurate. 

“Glee”’s Puck, on the other hand, puns on purpose. 

Puck: Dude, my bowels have better moves than you. 

Ah, the pure pun. It does what the ancient Roman rhetorician, Cicero, said rhetoric itself does, delighting, moving, and instructing the audience. Puck’s line certainly handles the moving part. His pun connects bad dancing with fecal matter in a way that records in the audience’s memory far more effectively than a more direct line. 

Unwritten: Dude, you dance like crap. 

Only one subject enhances memorability better than scat, and that’s sex. 

Will: Hold on a second, Sue.
Sue: I resent being told to hold on to anything. 

After that episode ran, kids across the nation could not wait to try Sue Sylvester’s line on each other. For better or worse, this kind of pun teaches children the ancient art of the sexual innuendo. You’ll find the identical device in the first Wayne’s World movie. 

Garth: I’m tired of holding this.
Wayne: That’s what she said. 

In each case, the sound of the word attaches itself to a different meaning, making the line dirty, funny—and memorable.

Associations also work when you compare things side by side, such as in an analogy. Managing the American economy is like driving a car with no windshield, and with a speedometer that only tells you how fast you’re going every three months. That’s an analogy. You can also make memorable associations simply by weighing one thing against another and noting the differences. There’s an old expression that Republicans love people and hate humanity, while Democrats love humanity and hate people. Many comparisons, like this one, point out differences while still making links. Republicans and Democrats are both flawed political types.

An even more powerful kind of association, the trope, creates a mental alternative reality. You’re already familiar with metaphor, the best-known trope. If you call the Earth a marble, your audience receives the mental picture of a marble against the dark background of space. Besides triggering the picture memory keeper, though, the metaphorical marble creates an association in people’s brains: Earth equals marble.

Another kind of trope associates the members of a group with the whole group. Most Norman Rockwell paintings use this trope: the kindly doctor, the young brave soldier, the teenage couple at the classic soda fountain. These pictures make you associate the groups with their representative characters: the medical profession equals kindly doctor, the military equals young brave soldier, and so on.

 Any kind of non-literal language or symbol constitutes a trope. We’ll get to more tropes later. Meanwhile, remember this: if it isn’t literally true, and still isn’t a lie, it’s a trope. Why should you care? Because while tropes constitute fancy rhetoric, they often don’t look fancy. Few people recognize politicians’ use of “Main Street” as a trope—a tricky way of making us think we all live in small-town America. That’s not literally true, and it’s not actually a lie; but it’s pretty darn misleading. Typical of your slick, sound-bitten, hair-done politico. (Yes, that’s a trope, too.)

And there we have it. All figurative language falls under one of those three categories: Sounds, Pictures, and Associations. When you want to speak memorably, visit the SPA. This next part shows you how. 

Now Start Unwriting

To find the SPA in a great line, you can employ Unwriting as a rhetorical magnifying glass. You met it in the first chapter, and you’ll see it throughout the book. The technique works whether you want to suss out the eloquence in a piece of writing or spot the rhetorical trick a public speaker used. I first thought of Unwriting years ago, when my wife and I were homeschooling our children in New Mexico. George had a plug-and-play sixth-grade correspondence curriculum. As a ninth-grader, on the other hand, Dorothy Jr. was too advanced for remote schooling. So it fell to me to teach her literature. At one point, we studied short stories. I had her read a variety of authors and choose the one she liked best. She surprised me with Edgar Allen Poe—not the cheeriest of authors, and I didn’t expect Dorothy to appreciate his Victorian prose. Nonetheless, we read a collection of the man’s stories, and she surprised me further by choosing “A Cask of Amontillado,” a grim story of murder by brick wall, as her favorite.

“Okay.” I said. “Now read the story over two or three more times. Then type it.”

“You mean, just copy it by typing?”

“Right. Pretend you’re Poe while you do it. Only of course you’ll use a computer instead of a pen; might as well practice your typing while you’re at it. And unlike Poe, you’ll be sober.”

The following day, I had her type the story all over again, without looking at it.

“From memory?”

“From memory. Now you can really pretend you’re Poe.”

“You’re going to drive me to drink,” she said. But she seemed jazzed at the thought of channeling a famous writer; and as an astonishingly accurate reciter of song lyrics, she was likely to come pretty close to the original.

The next day, we printed out both versions: the one she had copied while looking, and the one she had done from memory. Then we examined the ways they differed. Why had Poe done those passages his way? In some cases, we actually liked Dorothy Jr.’s version better. She wrote in a style more suitable for her day. But in other cases, we found marvelous figures of speech that took a little time to absorb. Dorothy still remembers that exercise as the highlight of my literary tutoring.

Since then, I’ve occasionally done a simpler version of that exercise myself. I’ll download podcasts like the storytelling series “The Moth,” write down the memorable expressions, and look at the difference. Let’s see how you can use the method on your own. 

Dissecting the Little Old Lady

You come across a great quote and want to know how it works, so you can steal the technique and produce a great quote of your own.  As an experiment, we’ll take an actual quote that has proven its memorability over the years; that is, people have clearly remembered it because it continues to get quoted. 

Harold Ross: The New Yorker will not be edited for the old lady from Dubuque.

Having gotten past the sexism, ageism, and annoying New York snobbery behind this quote by the magazine’s founder—and when you finish picturing the sizeable number of female over-sixty subscribers living in Dubuque today—you begin the first step of Unwriting: Translate. What does the passage mean? Well, Dubuque is in Iowa, a rural state allegedly filled with country folk in 1925, when the passage was written. So Ross doesn’t intend for the New Yorker to appeal to rubes—to unsophisticated rural types.

Now write your translation in the simplest possible terms. 

Translation: The New Yorker will be edited only for sophisticated readers. 

Good. Next, compare your translation with the original. We can see two differences. First, Ross’s version states the negative: the magazine will not be edited for the old lady. But that just leads to the second difference: the old lady herself. Ross put the sentence in the negative so that he could have the magazine reject her.

Clearly, that poor senior lies at the heart of whatever technique Ross is using. Is he referring to a specific old lady—an aunt who always sent him scratchy knitted pullovers for Christmas when he was a child? Presumably not. So we zero in on the key difference: the category of humanity represented by old ladies, expressed in terms of a single hapless woman. [J2] 

That’s Unwriting. 


  1. Translate the quote. What does it mean?
  2. Put that meaning into the simplest terms.
  3. Compare your simplified translation with the original.
  4. Zero in on the key difference.


Now you’re ready to spot the technique hidden in that key. Remember that memorability comes in three varieties: sounds, pictures, or associations. So, having zeroed in on the old lady, we need to ask ourselves where her memorability lies. 

Does the sound of the words make the quote memorable? Is the old lady a play on words, forming a new word or a pun of some sort?

Do the words draw a memorable picture—create a vision in the audience’s head?

Does the old lady link one thing to another in an association? Does she weigh things side by side? Are the words literally true, or do they seem ridiculous if you take them at face value? In other words, does she associate with a different reality? 

Hmmm. “Little old lady from Dubuque” does sort of trip off the tongue, but the sound of her doesn’t really make the quote memorable. I don’t see a hit song being written about her until she moves to Pasadena. No word-play there, either.

What about forming a picture? She does, doesn’t she? If you squint, you can see her rocking away on her farmhouse porch, glaring at a New Yorker cartoon and muttering, “That doesn’t seem so funny.” But she isn’t entirely literal, either. Harold Ross presumably wasn’t banning the editorial from a specific old lady, Mrs. Bona Fyed of 108 Podunk Road, Dubuque, Iowa. 

So we have two possible secrets to that old lady: she both forms a picture and makes a non-literal association. No worries. The choice is not some critical dilemma. We’re not taking an exam, here; we’re discovering the secret to the quote’s memorability. If you see more than one source of memorability, just pick one and explore. When you’re done, you can always go back and look at the other. 

 Since the Old Lady seems slightly more of an association with the non-literal than a picture, we’ll choose the non-literal path for now. But exactly what kind of trick are we talking about? Non-literal language almost always means tropes—special language that shifts reality. A metaphor is a trope, for example, because it claims that one thing is another thing.

Example: This fragile blue marble, the Earth. 

The old lady from Dubuque doesn’t work this way. If you called the Earth “the old lady from Dubuque”—that would be a metaphor. But the New Yorker’s use of the old lady entails a different kind of non-literal language, which I call the Belonging Trope. (I mentioned it in the first chapter; you’ll see much more of this kind of trope in chapter TK.) The old lady belongs to a group of people: unsophisticated readers. Instead of saying, “The New Yorker won’t be edited for unsophisticated readers,” Ross takes one character and makes it represent the group.

Now you have a way to find the SPA in a great sentence. Take a quote you love, unwrite it, and compare the two to find a sound, picture, or association.  In this case, after Unwriting the Ross quote, we isolated a non-literal link between unsophisticated readers and a representative, fictional Iowan. 


Now you. Go to Bartlett’, or find the actual paper John Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations in the library. You could use any other book of quotations, but Bartlett’s works best in this exercise, because the paper version arranges quotes by author in chronological order. Flip through it, and you’ll see how the styles change from one century to the next. And yet, reassuringly, the SPA remains the same throughout. Most of the quotes rely for their memorability on Sounds, Pictures, or Associations. Take half a dozen gems, from half a dozen eras, and unwrite them. You should start to see the essence of witcraft.

Having done this drilling-down, we need to ask what we’ll do with this little nugget of information. A professional wordsmith would instantly know what to do: steal it. Use the technique as your own. You can even steal most of the words themselves. The theft –perfectly  legal, with no real old ladies harmed in the process—constitutes a kind of Mad Lib. 

Mad Liberation

Have you ever played Mad Libs? That’s the game where the players supply parts of speech—noun, adjective, whatever—while one person writes them into blanks in a little story. (There’s now an official Mad Libs app for the iPhone.) Teachers find the game one of the best ways to teach kids parts of speech. They find Mad Libs hilarious; flash-backing stoners from the sixties, for their part, may find them strangely profound.

To steal a quote’s technique, unwrite it. Before you begin Mad Libbing, it helps to get a sense of what makes the words so great; and you’ll get insights into the occasions that suit the technique. By unwriting the Ross quote, we discovered that it would work well whenever we wanted to exclude a class of people. Unwriting also helps us discover the key words essential to any Mad Lib. Having found the key words, just write the parts of speech they represent. There’s your Mad Lib. 

Mad-Libbed Harold Ross:  [Noun] will not be [verb]ed for the [generalized person]. 

A politician could use the Mad-Libbed Ross, stealing the technique in order to stand against corruption. 

Politician: My office will not be run for the Armani-suited lobbyist on K Street. 

A bride-to-be could use the same Mad Lib to argue against her father’s suggestion for a tribute band at her reception. 

Daughter: My reception will not be for the mullet-haired Aerosmith fan. 

You get the picture. Or the trope, I mean. Stealing the techniques of others will seem easier after you have progressed all the way to Word Hero. In the meantime, though, Mad Libs can help you practice the tools as you learn them. So let’s see if we can unwrite and Mad Lib our way through one of the great lines that inspired me in the preface. 

Odgen Nash: A door is what a dog is perpetually on the wrong side of. 

It’s hard to make a complete theft of a superb line like that. The ending preposition (“on the wrong side of”) makes it sound quirky and fun, and that might be hard to reproduce. But let’s see whether there’s any way we can hijack the expression.  Start by unwriting it, translating it into the plainest, most obvious language. What, exactly, did Ogden Nash mean? 

Unwritten: A typical dog can never decide whether to be inside or out. 

You could come up with other interpretations, but I think this is what Nash meant. When a dog is inside, he wants to be out, and vice versa. Now compare the two versions, and zero in on the key difference. Well, the difference is obvious: The subject of Nash’s sentence is the door, while in the unwritten version it’s the dog.  This helps us spot the technique. Instead of telling us that dogs are never satisfied with the side of door they are on, Nash gives the definition of a door. He uses a definition for humor. (See chapter TK if you can’t wait to learn more about using definitions rhetorically.)

Great. We know the key element, we spotted the technique, now all we have to do is Mad Lib it. 

Mad Lib:  [noun] is what a [noun] is perpetually on the wrong side of. 

You could use it to make a statement about your spouse. 

You: Politics is what my husband is perpetually on the wrong side of. 

Not brilliant, but not bad, either. When you get used to Mad Libbing quotations, you can play with the technique without literally transcribing the words. Look at the Mad Lib version of Nash’s quote, and you can see that it has to do with a noun’s relationship to another noun. That relationship comes in the form of a definition. So whenever you want to describe a relationship in a witty way, try turning it into a definition. Start with the plain vanilla version. 

Unwritten: My wife can’t keep herself from yelling at the computer. 

Now put it in the form of a definition.

You: A computer is what my wife yells at.

Or make it more general.

You: A computer is a device for making my wife lose her temper.

Among the quotes you’ve come across, have you seen one that you might want to steal? Don’t worry, it’s not plagiarism if you do it right, adding wit of your own. If you ever take it public, you can assuage your conscience by noting that you are paraphrasing the original author. But chances are pretty good that that author stole the technique from someone else. Like Newton, we all stand on the shoulders of giants. (Unlike Newton, we writers also pick their pockets.) Now that your conscience is clear, Mad Lib the best quote. You should already have an idea of what the key words are. Substitute your own relevant parts of speech. Were you brilliant? If that didn’t work, take another expression; if necessary, unwrite it first. Now go get all witty on someone you love. Try unwriting every memorable quote you come across, and then Mad Lib it to suit your own memorable purposes. I’ve found this to be the best way to learn the tools that make your words, and you, stand out from the crowd. To make you, in short, a hero.

The Tools

You know that Chinese saying, “Give a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you’ll feed him for a lifetime”? This book gives you both the fish and the fishing. The forty-three tools should give you a big figurative leg up on witcraft. But behind them all are a couple of meta-techniques that let you take great quotes and transform them into your own memorable words.

Unwriting.  Take a quotation you love, and rewrite it in the plainest possible language. Then compare this simple version with the original. What’s the key difference that makes the quote work so well?  If you look carefully, you should see the SPA within most memorable expressions: a Sound, Picture, or Association. While sounds and pictures are relatively easy, associations take some practice. Often you’ll find a trope—non-literal language that associates the subject with an alternative reality.

Mad Lib Protocol. Take the key words in a favorite quote and “blank” them out with the relevant parts of speech: [noun] The New Yorker, for instance, [verb] for edited. Now see if you can fill in blanks with relevant words of your own. Not all quotes lend themselves to this exercise. For instance, how could you possibly ad lib this great W.C. Fields line?

Fields: Water? Never touch the stuff. Fish fornicate in it.

Still, you’d have fun trying. “Tequila? Never touch the stuff. Worms fornicate in it.”